The Trouble With Bright Kids

It’s not easy to live up to your fullest potential.  There are so many obstacles that can get in the way:  bosses that don’t appreciate what you have to offer, tedious projects that take up too much of your time, economies where job opportunities are scarce, the difficulty of juggling career, family, and personal goals.  But smart, talented people rarely realize that one of the toughest hurdles they’ll have to overcome to be as successful as they might be lies within.   

People with above-average aptitudes – the ones we recognize as being especially clever, creative, insightful, or otherwise accomplished – often judge their abilities not only more harshly, but fundamentally differently, than others do (particularly in Western cultures).   Gifted children grow up to be more vulnerable, and less confident, even when they should be the most confident people in the room. Understanding why this happens is the first step to righting a tragic wrong.  And to do that, we need to take a step back in time.

Chances are good that if you are a successful professional today, you were a pretty bright fifth-grader.  You did well in several subjects (maybe every subject), and were frequently praised by your teachers and parents when you excelled.

When I was a graduate student at Columbia, my mentor Carol Dweck and another student, Claudia Mueller, conducted a study looking at the effects of different kinds of praise on fifth-graders.   Every student got a relatively easy first set of problems to solve and were praised for their performance.  Half of them were given praise that emphasized their high ability (“You did really well.  You must be really smart!”).  The other half were praised instead for their strong effort (“You did really well.  You must have worked really hard!”).

Next, each student was given a very difficult set of problems – so difficult, in fact, that few students got even one answer correct.     All were told that this time they had “done a lot worse.”  Finally, each student was given a third set of easy problems – as easy as the first set had been – in order to see how having a failure experience would affect their performance.

Dweck and Mueller found that children who were praised for their “smartness” did roughly 25% worse on the final set of problems compared to the first.  They were more likely to blame their poor performance on the difficult problems to a lack of ability, and consequently they enjoyed working on the problems less and gave up on them sooner.

Children praised for the effort, on the other hand, performed roughly 25% better on the final set of problems compared to the first.   They blamed their difficulty on not having tried hard enough, persisted longer on the final set of problems, and enjoyed the experience more.

It’s important to remember that in Dweck and Mueller’s study, there were no mean differences in ability between the kids in the “smart” praise and “effort” praise groups, nor in past history of success – everyone did well on the first set, and everyone had difficulty on the second set.   The only difference was how the two groups interpreted difficulty – what it meant to them when the problems were hard to solve.  “Smart” praise kids were much quicker to doubt their ability, to lose confidence, and to become less effective performers as a result.

The kind of feedback we get from parents and teachers as young children has a major impact on the implicit beliefs we develop about our abilities – including whether we see them as innate and unchangeable, or as capable of developing through effort and practice.  When we do well in school and are told that we are “so smart,” “so clever, “ or “ such a good student,”  this kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness, and goodness are qualities you either have or you don’t. The net result: when learning something new is truly difficult, smart-praise kids take it as sign that they aren’t “good” and “smart,” rather than as a sign to pay attention and try harder.

[Incidentally, this is particularly true for women.   As young girls, they learn to self-regulate (i.e., sit still and pay attention) more quickly than boys.  Consequently they are more likely to be praised for “being good,” and more likely to infer that “goodness” and “smartness” are innate qualities.  In a study Dweck conducted in the 1980’s, for instance, she found that bright girls, when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up compared to bright boys – and the higher the girls’ IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel.  In fact, the straight-A girls showed the most helpless responses. ]

We continue to carry these beliefs, often unconsciously, around with us throughout our lives.  And because bright kids are particularly likely to see their abilities as innate and unchangeable, they grow up to be adults who are far too hard on themselves – adults who will prematurely conclude that they don’t have what it takes to succeed in a particular arena, and give up way too soon. 

Even if every external disadvantage to an individual’s rising to the top of an organization is removed – every inequality of opportunity, every unfair stereotype, all the challenges we face balancing work and family - we would still have to deal with the fact that through our mistaken beliefs about our abilities, we may be our own worst enemy.

How often have you found yourself avoiding challenges and playing it safe, sticking to goals you knew would be easy for you to reach?  Are there things you decided long ago that you could never be good at?  Skills you believed you would never possess?  If the list is a long one, you were probably one of the bright kids  – and your belief that you are “stuck” being exactly as you are has done more to determine the course of your life than you probably ever imagined.  Which would be fine, if your abilities were innate and unchangeable.  Only they’re not.

No matter the ability - whether it’s intelligence, creativity, self-control, charm, or athleticism - studies show them to be profoundly malleable.  When it comes to mastering any skill, your experience, effort, and persistence matter a lot.    So if you were a bright kid, it’s time to toss out your (mistaken) belief about how ability works, embrace the fact that you can always improve, and reclaim the confidence to tackle any challenge that you lost so long ago.


Can You Be Damned By Strong Praise? Understanding Innuendo

We all know how easy it is to damn someone with faint praise.  When you describe a coworker as “not completely useless,” or a potential blind date as “decent enough looking, I guess,” other people understand immediately what you are really saying.  Faint praise is generally used intentionally, to send a message.  And that message is:  steer clear of that one.

Why don’t we just come out and say what we really mean?  The short answer is that  there is an awful lot of social pressure to avoid directly criticizing other people.  Studies show that people who “bad mouth” others are viewed very negatively.  (Gossipers very much included – lots of people like to hear gossip, but they rarely like the person delivering it.) 

As the saying goes, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all.”  Faint praise is a great way to get around that particular problem – you get to technically say something nice, knowing that you are really saying something very different.

But what if you say something that isn’t just technically nice, but is actually nice – something genuinely positive?  New research by psychologists Nicolas Kervyn, Hilary Bergsieker, and Susan Fiske suggests that you can still inadvertently send a negative message, even when you say only unambiguously positive things – a kind of “accidental” innuendo.  The reason has everything to do with context.

When you are describing someone, people (largely unconsciously) expect you to mention aspects of personality or character that are relevant to the situation you are in.  In other words, if you are describing Bob to a potential employer, she will expect you to talk about Bob’s competence – is he hard-working, reliable, innovative?  If, on the other hand, you want to bring Bob along to a party and you are describing him to the hostess, she will expect you to talk about Bob’s warmth – is he engaging, funny, easy to get along with?

When you violate those expectations – when you focus on Bob’s warmth in the context of work, or praise his competence in a more social setting, new studies show that people draw very negative conclusions (even though, technically, you had only good things to say).  They assume that since you aren’t addressing what you should be addressing, you must be doing it intentionally.  What you aren’t saying leaves the biggest impact.

For instance, in one study, “Pat” was described as either “nice, outgoing, and sociable,” or “smart, hard-working, and competent”  Participants were asked to evaluate Pat as either a potential employee or as a fourth member of their travel party across Europe. When Nice Pat was judged in the context of travel-buddy, the overall impression was highly positive.  But when Nice Pat was judged in the context of work, he/she was rated very negatively.  Participants assumed that since no one mentioned Pat’s most relevant attribute – competence – that Pat must be a very nice doofus.

The key to avoiding unintentional innuendo is to really think about context when you are weighing in on someone’s good and bad qualities.  You might think that your friend’s best quality is his terrific sense of humor, but if that’s what you focus on when speaking to a potential employer, you may cost your friend a job.  Take the perspective of the person you are speaking to – what do they want to know about Bob?   Focus on the most relevant attributes, and you are more likely to leave the impression you actually intended.

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